I donít find it easy to write about this, for so much sincere,
honest endeavour has gone into it, yet somehow it seems able to rise above
the ordinary only in the fifth volume. This latter does indeed justify
many of the premises of the whole series so readers are alerted straightaway
that the criticisms I shall have to make of the earlier volumes are not
the whole story.
Angela Lear was encouraged many years ago by her teacher
Louis Kentner to examine the manuscript sources of Chopinís music. Over
the years she has gone on hunting down discrepancies between published
editions and manuscripts and, more lately, has been persuaded to display
her not inconsiderable pianistic skills in a series of recordings which,
it is claimed, are unique in their scrupulous observance of Chopinís
Excessive claims are always dangerous in that they
risk stimulating the opposite reaction. The records come with an introduction
from Colin Pryke which virtually challenges the dissenting critic to
prove he does not have cloth ears. "Among the cognoscenti, Angela
Lear is known as the worldís finest player of Chopinís music" (so,
if you didnít know this, you are ignorant by definition). "The
significance of the research and the attempt to produce exactly what
Chopin required has not always been fully understood or appreciated",
he warns us. Nevertheless, I have to side, at least as far as Volume
Four, with "those critics who have not yet fully appreciated the
importance of this work". Delicious, this "yet". My road
to Damascus may yet be found and, who knows, I may even sit down at
the piano one day and join "those mature artists who are not too
proud to reshape their performances in the light of these important
"Those Who" have been a convenient butt of
writers on music over the years. The doyen of opinionated musical analysts,
Sir Donald Francis Tovey, had plenty to say about "Those Who".
To stick with a single example, "Those who find it (Beethovenís
op. 110 Sonata) unimpressive are beyond the reach of advice",
he thundered in his famous edition of the Beethoven Sonatas, and "Those
Who" had a good deal more to answer for than that. The whole tenor
of Angela Learís Chopin series takes issue with "Those Who".
The great thing about "Those Who" is that they are by definition
without a name, yet with the aid of a little rhetoric readers can very
readily imagine them. And so the picture is built up of a rabid crowd
of egocentric pianists and editors who just canít wait to get their
filthy fingers on Chopinís pristine music and manipulate it to their
own ends. But who are the culprits? Who are "those who feel that
some pianists have the ability to improve on Chopinís music"? Who
are "those who seek to improve his work, or who fail to respect
it by using it as a vehicle to display their own technical facility"?
Which are the abominable editions? All of them? We are not told
Itís a funny thing, this business of Chopin editions.
Listen to this: "To indicate all the differences between the manuscripts
upon which Chopin worked and the original editions on the one hand,
and the editions now universally available on the other, would be an
endless labour. But the present strictly accurate edition will suffice
to show to what extent petty minds have at times Ö lowered the standard
of significance achieved by the composer".
Strong stuff. And no, itís not Lear and her collaborators
that wrote this; it comes from the
preface to the Oxford Original Edition of Chopin, dated 1928. And how
about this one: "The principal aim of the Editorial Committee has
been to establish a text which fully reveals Chopinís thought and corresponds
to his intentions as closely as possible". As most pianists will
recognise, this is from the Polish "Paderewski" Edition of
1949, an edition which many still prefer. As this preface goes on to
recognise, "Chopin frequently changed details of his compositions
up to the very last moment", leaving space for a wide variety of
"authentic" texts. A well-known British pianist once told
me that the guiding principle behind certain recent Urtext editions
seems to be that of taking the least musical available reading in every
So the idea that all the printed texts are wrong is
a red herring. The notes do at one point admit that the small differences
between this and other performances are not so much textual variations
but derive from the fact that the egos of many of the great artists
of the past (de Pachmann, Cortot, Rosenthal and Rachmaninov are named)
"would not allow the Composer complete control over his own music.
This was something he fought for in life, though in death he only has
an artist like Angela Lear (and hopefully others following in her tracks)
to seek to maintain his standards".
While it is true that some pianists in the past have
taken Chopin as fodder for their own genius, it is also true that there
have also been many Ė with Rubinstein their leading light Ė who have
believed firmly in Chopinís written scores and have attempted to follow
them. Furthermore, not all those who have taken a freer view have done
so out of mere arbitrariness and many have made their apparent "licences"
in the name of traditions handed down from teacher to teacher and just
possibly going back to Chopin himself (certainly, a number of "historical"
pianists believed this was the case). So just what does Lear have to
Her series has now reached five volumes, of which the
first two were for the now defunct APR label. Rights to these are now
held by Libra Records, who have reissued Volume Two (Volume One may
be reissued later), and for whom Lear has recorded her subsequent volumes.
I followed the 3rd Scherzo with the score
and I cannot say I noticed any point at which Angela Lear was not following
the Paderewski edition I had in front of me (but here we are: which
are the "wrong" editions and where are they wrong,
exactly?) Ė or at which she was doing so while the likes of Rubinstein
departed from it. Maybe this piece is not an ideal example since it
is not one of those subject to traditional "maulings". The
common aberrations which one might expect to see corrected, given the
premises of the enterprise, are two: firstly, the opening bars are often
played more slowly than the basic tempo, with "creative" interpretation
of the rests; and secondly, when the chorale-like theme is alternated
with gossamer figuration in the upper reaches of the keyboard, pianists
are inclined, given the extreme difficulty of leaping up from the former
to the latter and actually getting the right notes straight off, in
the right pianissimo touch, to take their time in moving upwards, respecting
the alternating character of the two musical ideas but playing
havoc with rhythmic continuity. Both these "aberrations"
are present in Rubinsteinís 1960s RCA recording, if to a lesser degree
than in most other performances. Over both these points Lear is more,
not less, indulgent than Rubinstein. In addition, there is also
a suspicion that while Lear is coping with the notes very competently,
Rubinstein is displaying a wizardry that goes beyond mere notes.
In the Boléro Lear emerges creditably
beside Rubinstein. The differences donít really have much to do with
interpretation or with their basic view of the piece (so Rubinsteinís
is "original Chopin" too?), itís just that Rubinstein is a
better pianist. His open octaves have an "I mean business" air,
his flourish goes up like a rocket and
he separates melody from accompaniment, or points up harmonic changes,
just that little more
The E major Nocturne raises another matter. Learís
melodic line does not particularly sing, and in so far as it is separated
out from the accompanying chords, it is done so by persistently playing
with the two hands not quite together. I always thought this was a bad
old habit, and maybe Rubinstein thought so too, for he certainly does
not do it, nor does he need to since he is quite able to separate the
two strands by colouring them. He is also a little faster, without in
any way contradicting Chopinís Lento marking, and the agitato
section sounds really that, without any hurry, not least because it
produces a myriad of textual clarifications which donít seem to be even
attempted by Lear. As regards the text, I had the Henle edition and
both of them diverged from it in small details. However, I got the impression
that, whatever edition they were using, they both had the same one.
The Henle edition has collected a certain amount of flak, but inventing
pedal markings was not on its agenda so what is the authority for the
surely effective long pedal in the third and fourth bars from the end,
ignored by both Rubinstein and Lear?
Without going into all the numerous comparisons in
the G minor Ballade, here I must say that Lear, just by playing straight,
produces a pleasingly sincere performance. It is the coda that fails
to clinch the argument. She can be heard negotiating all the notes very
ably but the difference between this and, say, Horowitz (just so as
not to say Rubinstein every time) is the difference between a creditable
performance and a scorching musical experience. And is it not conceivable
that Chopin himself, the "original Chopin", might have made
a scorching musical experience out of it ?
The B minor Mazurka is, above all, placid, except where
the triplets in the crossed-hands section seem to throw her and the
rhythm rocks every time. A comparison with Nina Milkina revealed a stronger
undertow of emotion but this is perhaps not one of Milkinaís finest
performances. Go to the first Rubinstein set (finely transferred on
Naxos) to hear a melodic line spun over the accompaniment with a vocal
freedom yet never betraying the mazurka rhythm. And you will never make
me believe that Chopin himself would not have better
recognised himself in this.
In the notes to the Polonaise-Fantaisie, "Those
Who" get severe reprimand. The "entirely new tonal effects",
which were "produced by a deep understanding of touch allied to
subtle pedalling techniques, transformed piano sound. (It is unfortunate
that Chopinís original pedal markings remain largely unknown)".
So "Those Who" have been mucking up Chopinís original pedal
marks. Which editions are wrong? Isnít a single one
of them right? As far as my humble ears can tell, Lear follows exactly
the markings in the Polish "Paderewski" Edition. If these
are Chopinís own, then I should have thought most pianists were aware
of them. Alfred Brendelís 1968 recording pedals the passage in exactly
the same way Ė and we all know that Brendel is not the man to use discredited
editions or to indulge in arbitrary interpretations of correct ones.
The comparison between these two performances is only
too revealing. Taken separately, Learís is a pleasing demonstration
of how a sincere belief in Chopinís text and a basic musicality can
allow the music to tell its own tale (except that here, too, triplets
seem to flurry her Ė she plays them too fast). Itís just that Brendel
goes farther up and farther in at every turn, with a just dialogue between
the hands in the B major section and an overall structural sweep that
makes one single, impassioned statement of a piece that can seem sectional.
(Brendel has turned rarely to Chopin but his one-off disc of Polonaises
is a fascinating document; it is currently available from Brilliant
Classics as part of a 6 CD box, 99351, and will be reviewed in due course).
The op. 17/4 mazurka is very successful. Given the
premises of "the original Chopin" it must be said that it
has about as many "personalised" rhythmic pointings (in the
first interlude) as anybody elseís; also, it is just as far as everybody
elseís from Chopinís metronome mark. This is a very swift marking and
would seem incompatible with the "Lento ma non troppo" tempo
indication. I donít advocate its observance, I merely point out that
this "original Chopin" ends up by raising doubts as to whether
the Chopin we know is so very "unoriginal". In this case Lear
is to be commended for an excellent performance.
Learís A flat Ballade is enjoyable, but Richterís recently
issued 1960 Carnegie Hall performance (RCA Red Seal 09026-63844-2 Ė
if you havenít got it then drop everything and run to the nearest shop)
is on another plane of existence. Even if you will look no further than
a correct realisation of the notes, then a speeding up of the "leggiero"
section (a mere few bars) is Richterís only textual sin. But for heavenís
sake, just listen to how every phrase at the beginning speaks,
how you can hear where each phrase is leading, and listen to
how he builds the work up to an overwhelming climax.
The B flat minor Scherzo shows Lear at her best, a
sensitive, technically secure performance that builds up well. I canít
honestly say I noticed anything musically or textually different from
the norm, in spite of the implied swipes at "Those Who" in
the notes. Referring to the opening bars we are told "It is crucial
.. that the irregular silences are measured as indicated". I concur,
and so, apparently, do many other interpreters, so I wonder who "Those
Who" donít count them out actually are. Well, a barís rest is lopped
off between bars 23 and 24 in this performance, though not at the corresponding
point later on. Maybe the extra barís rest (I have the Polish "Paderewski"
Edition in front of me) is one of those mistakes we have been making
all our lives, but then why not say so? We are also told in a footnote
that "Chopin was very particular with regard to the performance
of the opening triplet figure of this Scherzo .. and wrote: ĎIt must
be a question Ö a house of the deadí." "Those Who"
had got that wrong too, evidently, yet I can hear no basic difference
in character between Learís opening and Rubinsteinís. What I do hear
is that Rubinsteinís sound has a sharper profile, it speaks more.
This is the difference between great and lesser pianism, but Chopinís
text is respected in both cases. Lear also comments that "these
figures are usually snatched with an abrupt staccato Ďedgeí to the phrase
ends". Not by Rubinstein.
I decided to try another tactic with the next disc.
Not to follow through with the score and bring out the comparisons but
just to sit back and let Lear play me a Chopin programme and see whether
the basic sense of communication is there. The trouble is I couldnít
keep it up. The opening of the F minor Ballade seemed so slow and spelt
out, rather mannered in its halting presentation, that I had to get
out the score and start again. The funny thing is, with the score it
seemed reasonable enough. So having got to the end I tried again without
the score. My conclusion is that, while Lear keeps large-scale tempo
changes to a minimum, her actual phrasing, and the rubato she uses to
point it, is very much on a bar-to-bar basis, with the result that what
looks like a fair representation of the score if you follow it
with the music open actually gets stuck over and over again, so that
the listener who just wants a musical experience never really gets engaged.
Itís all quite nice (but, given the "original Chopin" theme,
wouldnít one expect the stretto from bars 199-202 to be carried through
to the end, instead of being turned into a rallentando in bars 201-2,
and the staccato chords to be that, instead of the last one being held
an age with the pedal?). So there was nothing for it, out came Richter,
an under-identified performance from 1962-1966 on AS 343 and, truth
to tell, he indulges in no more tempo licence than Lear (bars 199-202
are virtually recomposed by means of the sustaining pedal but, as Iíve
just pointed out, Lear doesnít play what Chopin wrote here either).
What he achieves and she doesnít is a true cantabile to the themes,
a sublime simplicity in his phrasing, always guiding the ear to understand
the shape of the phrase, and he concludes with a controlled maelstrom
of sound which is beyond the ken of normal people like you and me and
I actually did enjoy the op. 18 Waltz, feeling it had
an enjoyable swing to it, one or two clipped phrases apart. At the same
time, I felt it a rather effeminate grace I was being offered, more
suitable for certain movements from Schumannís Carnaval than
for the more fiery passion of Chopin, even at his most elegant. Still,
a nicely-turned account.
The B minor Scherzo is rather the case of Columbus
and the egg. Itís deftly managed, with a warmly-phrased middle section.
But this just doesnít go far enough when others offer a demonic brilliance
in the outer sections and poetic magic in the central lullaby.
In both the B major Nocturne and the C sharp minor
Polonaise I found once again that, while Lear keeps steady tempi in
the long term, in the short term her playing can be distractingly fidgety,
and with some more of her snatched triplets in the Polonaise, too. No,
I got limited enjoyment out of these.
Where the music is straightforwardly melodic, as in
the E flat Nocturne (and here we do get a textual novelty in the form
of a different cadenza noted down by Mikuli) and the early Polonaise,
she can be very pleasing (but couldnít we have had more sense of surprise
as the Polonaise introduces its Rossini quotation?). The F major Ballade
is a pleasant affair, too, though the placidity of the opening seems
closer to the world of Sterndale Bennett than
of Chopin. From the start of the Mazurka Nina Milkinaís performance
conveys a stronger profile, the music is going somewhere, with Milkina
developing a full head of passion as the music reaches its climax. Richter
may sometimes seem on the verge of flying out of control in the Scherzo,
but he conveys something. Iím afraid I have to record a sorry
case not unlike that of Helmuth Rillingís Bach, where a lifetimeís dedication
to the notes the composer wrote seems to me
not to have resulted in any larger
understanding of what the music says.
This disc brings with it a further manifesto in the
form of a free extra disc in which Angela Lear talks about playing Chopin,
first in general and then entering into some detail over the B flat
minor Sonata. On a number of occasions she goes to the piano and gives
us a few bars of a typical "Those Who" performance, adding
comments such as "Terrible!", "an amorphous mass of sound",
then following the demonstration with the same passage in what she believes
to be the correct manner. The problem is that, while Lear may not mean
to imply that the "terrible" performances are typical of the
likes of Rubinstein or Horowitz, some people might get that idea. This
is a point where I feel strongly that "Those Who" should have
been named. Could not Lear have illustrated her points with actual examples
from recordings by pianists who, however famous, she feels are imposing
their own egos on the composer? Alternatively the suspicion is that
"Those Who" are over-enthusiastic students or young hopefuls
just entering the concert-giving arena. But Lear does need to prove
that she is way above that level. It should be clear by now that, while
I donít think she plays the piano as well as Rubinstein or Horowitz,
I donít for a moment suggest she is less than professionally competent.
(And I havenít overlooked the fact that each programme, except the last,
was the result of a single dayís session, which means there was virtually
no time for faking. Most artists expect two or three days to record
a 70-minute programme). Speaking of the finale of this Sonata, she lets
us hear it in two ways, one an unholy mess, the other a good, very clear
performance. Still, the difference remains; that between an everyday
performance and a good one. Rubinstein lets us hear it in a third way.
He maintains the sotto voce marking as Lear does, he maintains
clarity as Lear does, but within this pianissimo sound he finds an infinite
variety of tone, he makes the phrases say something, and the final forte
pay-off is not just loud; it is stomach-wrenching.
However, the Sonata performance as a whole has many
strengths. Regarding the first movement, Lear does raise two important
points. Firstly, the main body of the work is doppio movimento,
exactly double the tempo of the slow introduction, while some performances
tear away at far more. Secondly, the climax of the development, as it
spills into the recapitulation, is hair-raisingly difficult and the
maximum tempo in which it can reasonably be done has to be the tempo
for the whole movement Ė there can be no putting on the brakes. It is
certainly interesting to hear this movement expounded rigorously and
steadily, and with the repeat. However, Rubinsteinís 1946 recording
is no less aware of these points (albeit repeatless) though the actual
tempo is faster. He seems to be virtually flagellating the piano at
the climax of the development, thrills and spills galore, but he manages
to hold the tempo and to engage the listener.
In the Scherzo it is Lear who makes little rhythmic
nudges here and there, compared with Rubinsteinís direct virility. The
lyrical sections of this movement, and the trio of the funeral march,
find him playing with peerless eloquence (and no distortion), and he
knows just as well as Lear does that the trio has to go at the same
tempo as the march itself. Learís left-hand-before-right is rather irritating
Regarding the funeral march, Lear insists (probably
rightly) on the need to place the grace notes on the beat, and
protests that despite her efforts, a critic commented that she plays
them before the beat. The trouble is, while she certainly makes
the grace-note and the left-hand coincide, she rather nervously makes
both come in ahead of the beat, so it really does sound as if
the grace note is anticipating the beat. She and her critics seem to
be both right and wrong in equal measure.
As for the remainder of the programme, the A flat Impromptu
lacks real lightness of touch and has a doggedly heavy middle section,
but the next few pieces show Lear in altogether more favourable light.
The "Lento con gran espressione" has real poetry and a real
feeling for its harmonic movement. And, if in this rare piece I may
be thought more lenient because comparisons with the various 'Those
Who" are lacking, I found the F sharp Nocturne equally fine, warm
and flexible in just the right way. The E flat Waltz, another rare piece,
is nicely turned but the F sharp Impromptu is a shade perfunctory and,
strangely given her strong words about "Those Who" make unauthorised
tempo changes in Chopin, Lear rather forges ahead in the middle section.
She is to be commended for keeping the elaborate return to the opening
subject so clear, the pedal exactly as written, unfortunately she makes
it sound so dry.
The early Marche Funèbre is sensitively
done; this piece was new to me, so I cannot tell whether a certain monotony
is attributable to the composer or the performer. But in the op. 50
Mazurkas she brings over-inflected rhythms to bear on all three of them
and loses the cadence of the dance. The famous op. 53 Polonaise is competently
played but this is hardly enough when the likes of Rubinstein Ė for
one Ė can turn it into proudly patriotic statement without any need
Here, too, we get a companion disc. This starts off
with a talk by Professor Guy Jonson, Learís former teacher and now her
mentor, and for many years Head of Piano Studies at the Royal Academy
of Music. The gist of it is that heís seen it all and itís all awful
Ė except Lear. Then Lear herself tells us all about playing the Preludes.
Again, she has a lot of fun demonstrating "Those Who" performances,
but really, sheís flogging a dead horse. As early as no. 2 her examples
of how not to do it are so grotesquely unmusical that no professional
pianist on any level would be so ghastly. As a series of tips for students
the disc might have some use, but the implication is that Rubinstein
et al have never noticed these points. I must say, too, that
having spent very many hours trying to get the right syncopated effect
in no. 1, I rather resent being lectured on the matter as if Lear has
discovered it herself.
However, the disc itself is a pleasant surprise. Not,
maybe, the first few Preludes, for no. 1 is a little dry and the left
hand doggedly intrusive in no. 3. But I was captivated by no 10, its
Mazurka-hints integrated for once tempo-wise with the cascading quintuplets,
and by and large I found that thereafter Lear was at last arguing her
case with spontaneity and a real appreciation of the music. The Preludes
are perhaps the most difficult Chopin works to get right (though some
would say the Mazurkas) since the brevity of most of them means that
if the mood and touch of each one is not spot on from the beginning
itís too late to save the situation. Generally I found myself sufficiently
in thrall to set aside memories of other interpretations and simply
The RAM acoustics (only the Preludes and Mazurkas were
recorded in the usual Bristol venue, and four years separate the sessions)
are more brilliant, but a touch clattery. Nevertheless I thought the
Valses had much vitality and Learís insistence on a steady waltz-tempo
is triumphantly vindicated. There is also much quiet poetry in the Nocturne
and the Barcarolle, not quite an impressionistic evocation à
la Lipatti, but joyously fluent all the same. The Mazurkas find the
natural rhythm which eluded the previous Mazurka performances.
So Volume Five deserves a place in our library of Chopin
discs for reference, and this raises the question of whether in her
own home, or in a public recital, she can achieve that easy dialogue
with the music which had previously largely eluded her in the studio?
Can it be that her many admirers who were instrumental in bringing this
series about had heard her play "in the flesh" with a flair
and communication which didnít come through at first to those who only
know her by the discs? The earlier volumes, as I made clear, suggested
something rather limited. Now Iím not quite so sure. If her next Volume
is on this level, I shall look forward to hearing it. And I wonder if
she is really doing the best she can for herself by sticking so rigidly
to Chopin. Surely she would make a good Brahms pianist, and how about
some clear-headed, un-neurotic Scriabin?